September 22, 2010
By Don Higgins
Even though it was late December, it was my first hunt from this particular stand. I always have a number of stands in place for every conceivable wind direction. But for various reasons, I had let this stand sit vacant through the early season and even during the heat of the rut. Nonetheless, I was still confident that I would see some good activity from this stand, even in late season, since it's located near a well-used bedding thicket.
It's one of those locations that always hold promise at any time of the season.
I had barely settled in for the afternoon hunt when the first whitetail appeared from the bedding cover. The glimpse of antlers increased my pulse until I recognized the buck as a 3 1/2-year-old 150-class 4x4 that I'd seen many times. I had videotaped this buck twice before within easy bow range, and once again the camera rolled as the buck passed by just 20 yards away. A few years ago I would have been glad to tag such a buck. But I had since raised the bar, and now I was looking for an older and hopefully bigger buck.
As I waited for the remaining daylight hours to give way to darkness, I was treated to the sight of three more bucks. The best of the bunch was a 2 1/2-year-old pushing 130 inches.
He was following a small band of does and fawns making their way to feed in a cornfield a short distance away.
A NECESSARY KILL
As the sun began to set, I saw another antlered deer making his way toward my position.
I recognized him as a buck I desperately wanted to shoot. His course of travel soon brought him within range of my stand, where the whisper of my Mathews bow sent him on a death run into the heavy cover. I knew the shot was a little high, and with overnight temperatures expected in the 20s, I elected to give him plenty of time. I made plans to return in the morning.
At daylight I was back at the scene with friend and cameraman Kevin Boyer to claim my prize. The search was short, and soon I was fixing my tag on the fallen buck. By now you are probably thinking that I had a mature buck down and would soon be visiting the taxidermist. After all, I had passed up a 150-class buck just before shooting this deer. But the buck I had just shot was a 3 1/2-year-old that field dressed 218 pounds, and he was far from being what most of us would call a "trophy." While he sported a decent 4-point antler on his left side, his right antler was nothing more than a 17-inch spike. I had watched this buck on our farm for the past two seasons, and he had always carried that spike antler on his right side.
I had hoped that another hunter would kill him, but that didn't happen. So with two buck tags still in my pocket and no venison in my freezer this late in the season, I decided to do some instant management of my own. Besides, I knew this buck would be 4 1/2 years old next season and therefore much harder to kill. But I had other sound management reasons for wanting to remove this buck from the herd.
PART OF THE PROGRAM
Several years ago when I first started working to turn my small farm into a whitetail paradise, I envisioned monster whitetail bucks running all over the property and regularly falling to my arrows. I have not been disappointed. In fact, my success has been greater than I ever imagined, but some unexpected things have happened along the way as well.
One challenge that arose was the need to cull certain bucks from the herd in order to maintain top-end quality on the farm.
The longer I hunt whitetails, the more selective I become regarding the bucks I target. I am no longer happy with killing the biggest buck in an area. Sometimes the biggest buck in a particular location just isn't big enough. While age is very critical in growing trophy bucks, genetics can be a limiting factor with every animal. No matter how old my " long spike" buck from last season had lived to be, he never would have grown a high-scoring rack.
In a wild free-ranging herd, a whitetail buck that is 3 1/2 years old or older can pretty much find an area where he is the boss. That doesn't mean that this area is necessarily a prime one or that he will be free from more dominant bucks moving through his area. But he usually can find a location where he doesn't have to cower to a dominant animal, at least most of the time. I would also like to inject here that the dominant buck in any specific area may not have the biggest rack in that area. The dominant buck may well be a huge-bodied, mature 8-pointer while the bucks with the most impressive headgear are smaller in body size and stature.
What I've learned is that it's hard to stockpile mature bucks on any given property without high fences. You can do everything possible to create the very best habitat on your land, but the number of mature bucks staying on it will be limited. The dominant buck is going to stay, but some of the bucks below him in the pecking order are going to move on and search out their own core areas. On most properties, there will be fewer bucks in each succeeding age-class until you get to the single dominant animal on top.
Keep in mind that I have a fairly small piece of land. The dynamics could be much different if I had several thousand acres.
For example, through monitoring the deer on my small farm with multiple trail cameras and intense study, I know that during any average hunting season I'll have about six to eight yearling bucks, three to four bucks that are 2 1/2, two or possibly three bucks that are 3 1/2 years old, and a single older dominant buck. This does not mean that other bucks won't occasionally wander through, but these "home bucks" are regularly seen or photographed on my property throughout the year. Without a doubt they also wander off the farm on a regular basis.
Mortality through hunting or other causes will naturally decrease the overall numbers in each successive age-class. I've noticed that an interesting phenomenon occurs with the 3 1/2-year-old bucks. No matter how many 3 1/2-year-old bucks are on my property one year, in most cases only one of them will spend significant time there the next season as a 4 1/2-year-old. For example, in February 2008, I had three bucks regularly using my farm that were 3 1/2 years old. Ironically, one of those bucks moved in after I shot the one-spiked buck mentioned earlier. This new buck was a 150-class 5x5. I consider that a great trade!
NEVER CULL YOUNG BUCKS
I'm certain that by the late fall of 2009, only one of those 3 1/2-year-olds will be staying here on a regular basis. The others may come back from time to time to check things out, but they likely will find their own core area where they can be king somewhere else, even if it means taking up residence in a smaller or less desirable area.
The most frustrating aspect of this dominance phenomenon to me is that the majority of the 3 1/2-year-olds that move off my property are usually the ones with the most desirable antlers. This goes back to the idea mentioned earlier that the most dominant buck is often a bigger-bodied but smaller-antlered individual. And that is precisely the reason why I shot the one-spiked buck. As a big-bodied 3 1/2-year-old, he was about to reach the top of the dominance ladder on my farm. The last thing I wanted was to have a dominant buck with a long spike antler on one side!
Deciding which bucks to cull on your land is not a difficult process. I'm completely against culling 1 1/2-year-olds. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone make an excuse for shooting a yearling buck by saying something like, "He was a 'knot head' that was never going to amount to anything so I culled him out of the herd."
In my opinion, if that person had been truthful, he could have just as easily said, "I have no self control and when this buck came by, I couldn't resist the urge to shoot him."
YEARLINGS OFTEN SURPRISE YOU
I can think of two real-life examples of yearling bucks that many hunters would have culled. The first example comes from my small herd of captive whitetails. A few years ago, I had a yearling buck with tiny forked antlers that were only a few inches long. As a 2 1/2-year-old, that same buck carried a rack that scored about 130 inches. As a 4-year-old, he scored 186 inches!
Now for the rest of the story — that particular buck was born on the last day of August (extremely late). His mother was a doe fawn that was bred on the previous Feb. 14. He grew his first rack before he was even a year old, thus explaining its small size. Had that buck been born in the wild, he easily could have been "culled" as a yearling when all along he had the potential to reach B&C status. How many times has this actually happened in the wild? How many potentially high-scoring B&C bucks have been culled as yearlings?
Another example comes from a deer in the wild on our farm. During the 2007 hunting season, I had a buck fawn on the farm that I am certain was born after Oct. 1. I got a Predator trail camera photo of this fawn in early November, and at that time I'm sure the deer was less than three weeks old. I had serious concerns about this deer being able to survive the winter. But during a couple of January hunts, I saw him feeding in food plots with the other deer and he appeared very healthy, although his winter coat looked a little odd with spots that were still very visible.
A year later during the 2008 hunting season, I saw a yearling buck on my farm that was very small in body size and he carried a set of 3-inch spikes. Since this was the only true spike buck I had ever seen in the wild on my farm (or anywhere else in my home state of Illinois, for that matter), I was reasonably sure that this spike was, in fact, that late-born fawn from the previous fall. Once again, a buck's genetic potential for growing big antlers can never be judged by his first rack!
USE DISCRETION IN CULLING
Attempting to cull yearling bucks is a bad idea because there are far too many variables involved. If a buck suffered a major setback as a fawn, it might take him a while to catch up with others in his age-class. I believe this is also true for most 2 1/2-year-old bucks.
Therefore, I firmly believe that the time to cull undesirable bucks from your herd is when they reach 3 1/2 years of age. At this point, you can tell a lot about a buck's potential.
And by removing them at this age, you limit the amount of breeding they will do, thus preventing the spread of undesirable antler characteristics.
If you've gone to the effort of improving a hunting property that you lease or own, you're likely looking to manage for bigger bucks. As I have already stated, you cannot stockpile older-age-class bucks and expect them to all remain on your property. As the habitat on your property becomes better and better, you'll likely get to a point where culling specific bucks from your land will be necessary to maintain the quality of bucks you seek to produce.
There are no set rules for deciding which individual bucks to cull on your property.
You'll have to decide that based on several factors, but antler genetics will probably be at the top of the list. Use common sense and discretion and don't overdo it. Remove only those bucks that you think may be detrimental to the herd.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Video footage showing the author harvesting the buck mentioned in this article can be seen on "Real World Whitetails — Volume 2." Go online to www.realworldwhitetails.com.
To purchase a copy of the author's popular book, Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World, send a check or money order for $25 to Don Higgins, Rt. 1, Box 271, Gays, IL 61928, or go online to www.higginsoutdoors.com. This Web site also details the author's habitat improvement services.